In a sea of protesters: Journalists

I read an article yesterday about the role journalists should take in protests, marches, and the dialogue surrounding all of the changes being made by President Trump.

The post began:

On Sunday, [Jan. 29], Robert Hernandez went on Twitter to share his thoughts as “a Catholic who believes in equal/human rights, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation.” He explained that President Trump’s executive order indefinitely blocking Syrian refugees from entering the United States and suspending immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries conflicted with his own religious beliefs.

Hernandez, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg, followed up with a question: “As [a] journalist, this has been a tough time. Do I watch and report or do I participate?””

I, Charlotte Wray, have a similar complex. I believe in equal rights, human rights. It hurts me deeply to hear the blind prejudice of some around me. It hurts even more when it is intentional, of course. I believe the same things as Mr. Hernandez. 

But I too am a journalist caught in this conflict.

The article continued: 

His tweets came at the end of a week in which multiple nationwide demonstrations took place. In just nine days, millions of marchers took to the streets to support women’s rights, protest Trump’s Mexico border wall, rally against abortion, gather for abortion rights, and challenge the refugee ban.

Amid this protesting, journalists like Hernandez find themselves struggling to figure out where they fit in.

The longstanding guidance for journalists on demonstrations has been fairly straightforward: Don’t participate in marches, protests or rallies relating to topics your newsroom might cover. But, as NPR details in its code of ethics, the advice is more nuanced than that:

“There is real journalistic value in being an observer at public events such as a march or rally, even without a reporting assignment. But while we may observe, we refrain from actively participating in marches, rallies or public events involving political issues or partisan causes that our organization covers or may cover. Of course, the distinction between being a participant and being an observer can be subtle. But waving a picket sign or joining along in a cheer would be inappropriate. Again, we rely on your good judgment.”

As with many codes of ethics, NPR suggests a case-by-case basis: “Since the nature of each event differs, it’s wise to discuss these matters ahead of time with supervisors to figure out where ethical pressure points may exist or emerge. If attending such an event as an observer, take care in behavior, comments, attire and physical location not to reflect a participatory role.”

I marched in the Women’s March. It was a knee-jerk reaction to feeling misrepresented by the President. A reaction to the pain, sadness, and fear I felt. I do not regret marching. I felt like I was surrounded by a family. It was peaceful. I felt understood and seen, and even if someone had not met someone of a certain culture, religion, sexuality, you name it, the atmosphere was inclusive and felt like fear could be overcome with kindness, love, and this intensity among the people. 

I felt like myself. And for once it was a thrill to be there and not be a journalist – even though I do love, love my job as a reporter.

But I realized when I returned to the paper and wanted to use my personal photos, that it probably wasn’t fair, as I had my sign held high, and I had chanted for democracy, equality, and far more – something that not all of our readers agree with. 

But I have to be okay with that, and I will add that I need to get them to read out paper if it shed some light on those things that I want to be made right. But that means I have to appeal to them, and I have to do that by way of good journalism, of seeking the truth and telling that, not “a commentary” as I was recently told.

Let me finish guiding you through this article, it is worthwhile to hear it out:

NPR is more straightforward with its social media guidance. Journalists are advised to “refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online” and directed not to “express personal views on a political or other controversial issue that you could not write for the air or post on” That guidance, which is similar across many news organizations, can be challenging given the never-ending political conversation on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

But what about journalists who don’t work at NPR? While some newsrooms have offered guidance related to events such as the Women’s March, the frequency and volume of demonstrations and political discussion require deeper action. It’s incumbent on U.S. news organizations to take a fresh look at their codes of ethics and provide clear and updated guidance to their journalists.

The responsibility lies with managers, too. Bosses should communicate guidance to their teams and provide opportunities for their employees to share their concerns, no matter their political or religious beliefs.
Consider a Muslim journalist whose family may be impacted by the ban — can she join the airport demonstrations? Does newsroom guidance apply to the reporters who cover women’s issues or immigration? Is it political to say that climate change exists? And what about the Trump voter who wants to correct the misconception that all journalists are liberal?

This is where being objective is important. I can fight here, though many times it doesn’t feel like fighting. My fighting will look different than my fellow marchers. 

Mine will be with pictures, without a sign in my hand. But that will give me more credit.

Above images by News of Orange contributing photographer, Adina Davidson.

I will report in the middle, and name the facts, so that when I publish a story, I can be trusted when something important and big does happen. 

As journalists are ridiculed by our President, and the truth no longer feels like the truth, I must be an advocate for honestly, for truthful work done for the people. 

The article finishes:

Questions like these require open and honest discussion with higher-ups. Now more than ever, journalists need a safe, neutral space to talk through what’s happening, and a newsroom office is a better venue than social media.

Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all guidance for political participation. What makes sense for Washington Post staffers may be different than for people who work at Vox Media. For newsrooms with unclear or outdated guidance, reporters can play to their strengths and ask questions about what is and isn’t allowed. It’s the duty of leadership to provide direction, especially in such a fast-paced and demanding news cycle, and staffers should demand it.

The deeper problem, as Hernandez articulated, is that many journalists feel like they’re not contributing to the current political dialogue. They worry that sitting out demonstrations or staying silent on social media may signal compliance or complacency. In a “pics or it didn’t happen” culture, what can journalists show?

As 1A host Joshua Johnson offered to Hernandez, “Reporting is participation — incisive and meaningful.” Focusing on the facts, accurately reflecting citizens’ views and holding elected officials accountable are all core tenets of journalism and directly contribute to democracy.

Andrew M. Seaman, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, echoed those thoughts on Twitter the following day. “Journalists, I know some of you may want to protest, but you’re much more useful producing great journalism,” he wrote.

And those who don’t report on politics (though that distinction might be murky) or work outside editorial can always support stressed-out colleagues, build tools to better inform readers, push for internal and external transparency, voice concerns and so on. No matter the position, everyone in journalism has the potential to play a vital role in democracy right now.

“Journalists are inside the action,” Johnson added. “Let’s not miss our chance to do good.”

I am here to report truth – and me and my editor have talked about this, and how we fit into this mess. I have sat in the room with those who do not share my political views, and they have showed anger, resentment and yes, hatred to our publication, which has probably been more historically left-leaning – which is not that surprising as Hillsborough and Orange County are blue regions when it comes to voting.

But if I am the only newspaper in town, and only one side reads my paper, am I really reporting the news? Am I doing any good? I need to make it accessible to everyone, and that is the promise I made those friends of mine.

I am here to tell the truth, even if it does hurt people, including myself. I can do more good by being objective than I can do by being a reporter with a sign. So, at the next protest, look for me with my pen and pad, and my camera. I’ll be in the middle – where I belong. But just doing a different job, one that is necessary in an age that feels full of lies.